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A complex identity issue for British Open champ Rory McIlroy. Photo by: Getty

Is Rory McIlroy British, Irish or both?

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A complex identity issue for British Open champ Rory McIlroy. Photo by: Getty

An Irish tricolor was very noticeable in the crowd as Rory McIlroy made his way to the first tee at Royal Liverpool yesterday for the final round in the British Open.

Equally, and at practically the same time, the BBC commentator was remarking on how wonderful it would be to have a British player like McIlroy win the British Open, the signature trophy in British golf.

The question of Rory McIlroy’s national identity is front and center again after his historic British Open victory. Which is he Irish or British—or both?

The furor first exploded last year when McIlroy hinted he would represent Britain in the 2016 Olympics when golf will be a sport for the first time. That got the nationalist Irish gritting their teeth.

It was pointed out that McIlroy, nationality issues aside, had come up through the 32 county Irish golf system and had always benefitted from that.

It is complicated, even more so by the startling success of Northern Irish golfers in recent years.

Five of the last eighteen golf majors have been won by Northern Irishmen, three by McIlroy and one each by Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell—an incredible feat for a land of 1.6 million people.

All three are from Northern Ireland, an identity that is difficult to begin with and led to a prolonged war for thirty years over the issue.

So which is Rory McIlroy? He competes under the Northern Ireland flag yet will represent the Irish Republic in the 2016 Olympics.

Unlike say, Padraig Harrington who grabbed the Tricolor after his major wins, Rory McIIroy refuses to be drawn on what identity he prefers,

The athlete he most resembles is former boxing champion Barry McGuigan, who took the issue to new heights when he fought with a UN flag in his corner and had his father sing “Danny Boy” at his fights rather than the Irish national anthem.

McIlroy is Catholic from County Down, arguably the county least affected by the Troubles.

The reasons for that are complex, but relate to the fact that unlike in Tyrone say, the British conquerors dealt far more evenly with the conquered there.

The county is a bastion of moderate nationalism and McIlroy seems to have grown up without any pressing need to impose his Irish as against British heritage.

There is no problem accepting the Britishness of say Darren Clarke or Graeme McDowell, who are from the Protestant tribe, but McIlroy clearly has a different issue as a Catholic.

His parents never imposed any identity on him other than seeking to turn him into one of the world’s greatest golfers, which they have certainly done.

It will always be an awkward issue for McIlroy who had a grand-uncle killed by Loyalists in The Troubles.

However, he may be representative of a new identity in Ireland, neither Irish nor British but an amalgam of both.

As he raised the British Open trophy on Sunday it was hard not to feel immensely proud of a young Irishman and to worry far less about what label to put on him.

McIlroy had made the Irish and British proud and perhaps we should just leave it there.

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